NIH Director Francis Collins said: “NIH will make every effort to adhere to the vision of the working group by seeking to implement the recommendations provided.”

NIH Director Francis Collins said: “NIH will make every effort to adhere to the vision of the working group by seeking to implement the recommendations provided.” Sait Serkan Gurbuz/AP file photo

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NIH Works to Prevent Sexual Harassment Among Federally Funded Researchers 

Agency has already taken some recommended steps but others will take longer, director says.

After years of reports of pervasive problems, a working group has delivered a series of recommendations encouraging federal science agencies to better address allegations of sexual harassment and other professional misconduct in the research community. 

The National Institutes of Health, which established the working group, said it has already implemented some of the changes. NIH is committed to the remaining reforms, agency Director Francis Collins said, but will require consultations with other federal entities and an assessment of “policymaking options.” 

The working group’s study followed a report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine that found sexual harassment of women and a failure to hold perpetrators accountable endemic in the scientific research community. NIH charged the group with assessing the current state of sexual harassment, psychological abuse and other misconduct at agency-funded organizations, including the process for investigations, reporting and remediation. NIH asked for ways to create a safer culture at the conferences it sponsors, end hierarchical structures and provide better research on anti-harassment training. 

The group held listening sessions with targets of sexual harassment and put together several key takaways: federal laws meant to protect women in higher education instead protect institutions; retaliation against those who speak out against harassment is common; targets of harassment rarely receive restorative justice, meaning they are afforded opportunities to continue their careers; and federal agencies such as NIH often exacerbate the problem. 

The group suggested NIH take sexual harassment as seriously as it takes research misconduct, which refers to issues such as fabrication of results and plagarism. NIH should create a parallel process that follows the robust system already in place for tackling research misconduct and awardees should report to the agency within two weeks. Any organization should have a professional code of conduct in place to be eligible for an NIH award, the group said. 

It also called on NIH to establish a hotline and web-based form for individuals working on an agency-funded project to report sexual harassment, as well as standard operating procedures for NIH’s response when it receives allegations. In response to the report, Collins said NIH has already set up lines of communication for individuals working on agency-funded projects to report allegations. The agency has received 105 notifications since June, which Collins said shows the new process is working. He added the agency has already established standard operating procedures to respond and will publish them soon. 

Collins promised other reforms would come soon, such as measures to enhance conference safety, funding opportunities for targets of sexual harassment and new research. The working group suggested NIH take steps to restore careers of harassment targets through steps that integrate them back into the research workforce. Institutions harboring harassers should offer those targets 20 hours of outside legal counsel, outside psychological support and career services. 

“We must ensure that targets and other affected individuals are able to thrive in the biomedical workforce, whether the target is returning to or continuing in the workforce,” the working group said. “Over the long-term we aspire to rebuild the trust of the biomedical research community in our institutions and our funding agencies.” 

Collins said NIH must still take time to assess how to implement some reforms. The group suggested, for example, that individuals should face periods where they are not eligible for NIH awards or placement on agency councils, if they are found to have violated professional codes of conduct. It also called on NIH to give funds directly to students, postdoctoral researchers, research assistants and other trainees to reduce hierarchical relationships. NIH should require grant recipients to conduct research on effective anti-sexual harassment training, the working group suggested. 

The group said implementation of its recommendations was not just a moral obligation, but essential to creating high quality science. It directed NIH to create an evaluation plan to ensure all the reforms have their intended effects. 

“I am supportive of these solid recommendations,” Collins said. “NIH will make every effort to adhere to the vision of the working group by seeking to implement the recommendations provided.”